Tide Head to Le Corbeau Refuge
Two Faucets Camp to Dream Porch Camp
ECT miles: 23
Total miles: 2521.7
Elevation change: 3816ft gain, 2792ft loss
Oh, Quebec, you with your sneaky-hard trail. Why did you have to kick our butts so hard on day one? Is this how it’s going to be for the next three weeks, or are we going to figure something out? SpiceRack and I made it to Quebec today, and it was almost immediately more challenging than anything we’d seen north of Katahdin. Like I said yesterday, New Brunswick certainly wasn’t easy, but it was a different challenge altogether. Whereas the flatness of the previous section was difficult on the scale of the day-to-day grind, the steeps of Quebec reminded us of what it’s like to struggle step-to-step. Uphill muscles creaked back to life, and for the first time in a week, our mph lost all predictability. Road changed to trail, and green things reached across the narrow track, tickling our limbs and stretching spiderwebs across our faces. Some of these changes were welcomed, at least initially, but it was laughable how quickly we were pining for flat roads again. We hikers are impossible to please, but hey, sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side. And if we didn’t have something to complain about then all we would have left to do is eat cookies until we hate ourselves. What a bummer that would be.
I was awake and restless early, too hot and anxious about the day ahead. So much to do, so many unknowns. Spice was feeling it too, so we got our act together and revved our momentum forward. Sitting across from me at breakfast, Spice looked particularly beautiful as we filled up on pancakes, coffee, and oj, and deftly navigated a tricky conversation with our exuberant host. He flew from topic to topic with little preamble, some truly interesting such as local forest management and the difference between the Quebecoise and French-New Brunswickians, while others caused me to grit my teeth and nod. I was just along for the ride, and was relieved when the conversation suddenly broke off. Time to go. We were packed and out of there before 9am.
The day could not have been more glorious for taking a walk. There were some high clouds, but the air was warm and of course there was that cool morning sea breeze. I was going to miss the water, even if it wasn’t the true ‘coast’, the freshness and empty space, but I was also excited to get back into the mountains, real mountains. There was freshness and vast horizons above treeline as well. In another week, we’d be there, and then we’d soon be back on true coast. Quebec was going to be nuts.
We bounced around a few stores, looking for isobutane, but found none. Eh, cold ramen is alright. Then, after mailing Spice’s broken poles and Gronk to Tango, we headed to Timmy’s for our final tune-up. The drive-thru was slammed, and the local patriarchs were holding court at the tables inside. They were friendly, freely gifting us with smiles and tidbits of classic old-guy advice, and for a moment we were part of the club. Then our lattes were ready and we left to learn some wisdom of our own.
When Spice stuck out her thumb, none other than our friend from yesterday, Pierre, pulled over to offer us a ride back to trail. Cambellton came full circle for us then, and we said our farewells to both him and the town when he dropped us off back at McDavid’s store. Seven pleasant miles later, we prepared to say goodbye to New Brunswick as well. The road walk along the Restigouche River had flown by, indecisive tidewater giving way to purposeful freshwater as we cruised along the quiet highway. When it was time, we turned right to cross a massive concrete bridge, anticipation building with each step. In the middle we stopped to snap some photos and soak in the sights. We would never be here again, this place, this time, and it was worth taking a few minutes to make this memory permanent. On the other side of the mighty Restigouche a sign welcomed us to Quebec in four languages. Fortunately, one of them was english.
Even though we were just getting started for the day, when we walked past a roadside cantina and saw potatoes being peeled by hand, it was a no brainer to stop for some french fries. The correlation between french fries and Quebec didn’t really make sense, but there was an inescapable appeal to eating french fries in a french-speaking country, or province, or whatever. They were epically fresh, tender and served with a fork, tanned to a healthy patina during their oil bath. We nommed down, fascinated by the parade of high schoolers wandering in from the highway, then returning to school with towering cones of ice cream. I bet that their teachers loved that.
Eventually we joined the procession, then continued on to the heart of Matapédia, where the Quebec portion of the IAT officially started. Just before leaving the road, a dude in a pickup pulled over to give us props. He’d seen us hiking near Kedgwick, and was stoked for our journey. His stoke became my stoke as we stepped off the pavement onto gravel. Nope, this wasn’t an ATV track. This was a bonafide hiking trail, built just for us people to walk on. What a concept.
At the top of the first steep rise, we reached an artfully crafted archway signifying the beginning of the IAT, or GR A1 as it is also designated in Quebec. Herein began a thru-hike within a thru-hike. The GR A1 is a relatively popular route independent of the larger IAT or ECT. Even though we hadn’t seen a single hiker on the IAT so far, we expected that to change while walking Quebec’s premier long-trail. We also hoped that the route would live up to its “Grand Rondanee” badge, which, as the bulletin board explained, is only given to walks of sufficient quality and scenery. As a fan of quality and scenery, I took that as a good sign. I followed Spice through the arch and into the next adventure.
The forest was like a movie set, well-spaced and glowing under a green canopy, but damn, this trail was steep. Still too early to pass judgments, I held my tongue, but I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I wasn’t prepared for this kind of fight. We chugged along, and I focused on the delightfully soft tread. My feet already felt refreshed as Spice and I were reminded of how it felt to step without pain. We were also reminded that mosquitoes were a thing in the woods as they munched our legs. We couldn’t outrun them, not on this trail, so they had their fill of me.
After a few slow miles, we found ourselves at a road crossing, where we had a choice to make. With a late start and many miles to make in order to stay on our fixed itinerary, it was becoming clear that we were screwed. Seventeen miles after 12pm wasn’t so bad if we were cruising on road, but it was torture at 1.5mph on these steeps. After looking at the map, I threw out the idea that we walk the road instead of the trail for several miles. Spice took zero convincing, which was a relief because I was ready to make peace with the road. I had no shame in crawling back. We could put our differences behind us and forget that we’d ever hated one another.
So we took the road, instantly feeling the weight of impossible expectations lift from our shoulders. We laughed at the irony, but accepted it. We were road people now. Northern Maine and New Brunswick had ruined us. Who wants to suffer in the trees when one can cruise under a wide sky?
The road was hot and exposed, but it was everything that we loved. Roads are the best. We didn’t even complain about the rekindled ache in our soles. Fields of tall dandelion grass stretched from horizon to horizon and we got to see an industrial-sized lawn mower do its thing with satisfying precision. A friendly dog showed up and would have joined us if not for her clingy owner. These were great, but what I really loved was walking side-by-side with Spice and swooping around smooth turns like a bird in slow-motion. Truthfully, I just wasn’t ready to push myself yet. Quebec had gone from zero to one hundred in a blink, and I needed more time to make that jump. I think that we both did. Hopefully, we’d be ready by the time we ran out of road.
We stopped for a rest on some grass, then kept on going after some date bars and chips. I was starting to feel dehydrated and loopy, but water was hard to come by on our improvised alternate. We had to keep moving. Soon, I started to grind, and couldn’t help fantasizing about quitting the trail to live in our van for a few weeks instead of hiking. That sounded easy and restful. I just wanted to rest. Even though it wasn’t a serious consideration, this thought was the closest I’d come to considering the unthinkable on any thru-hike. Noticing this was a wake up call. Why was I here? What did the ECT mean to me? Would this feeling pass, or was I completely over hiking? Had New Brunswick knocked it out of me? Why was I so tired? I didn’t voice my concerns to Spice. This was new territory for me, and I wanted some time to sort it out, or hopefully wait it out. Besides, wasn’t I dehydrated?
Nothing was open in the next small town, but we did find a functioning spigot behind a church. We filled our bottles, chugged as much water as we could, and filled them again. After sitting in the shade for a few minutes, I was feeling better and it seemed like both of us were making the turn. The sun was dipping, and the heat of the day had passed. We tried not to think about how many miles we still needed to go and kept moving.
At the end of a dirt road, we finally had no choice but to get back on trail for the last eight kilometers to camp. Fortunately, this walking path was significantly less vertical than the previous one as it bounced along a small creek. The shade was refreshing, as was the sound of running water, and we hiked quite happily, remembering that not all trails are killers. Even the final climb of the day was reasonably graded, and the forest on top was magnificent in the fading daylight. We kicked through a carpet of ferns along soft, needle tread, lined with tufts of white flowers. This isn’t so bad, after all. For the final mile, Spice regaled me with tales of her ex’s, which really made me feel like the greatest person in the world. It was a lively conversation, easily my favorite part of the day.
At 9pm, with the last of the dusty orange glow fading behind the forested horizon, we stumbled into camp at Le Corbeau Refuge. This was our first of the much-hyped Quebec refuges, and it did not disappoint. It was a beautiful modern cabin, complete with covered porch, kitchen area, and bunks, not to mention a stupendous view from its perch on the hillside. Best of all, it was empty. With a favorable forecast, we set up to sleep on the deck, distributing candles for ambiance, and cooking up some ramen with the half-full canister of isobutane that someone had left behind. The trail provides. As hard as the day had been, it was easy to forget the struggles when surrounded as we were by such beauty. We felt like royalty, and I was totally on board again. Quebec might be alright after all.
The stars burned brightly in the night sky. A mouse scurried close to our heads. I wasn’t ready to do it all over again yet, but I was optimistic that I’d be willing to give it another shot in the morning. Of course I would be.